Mariam’s Night Out

Mariam's night out

On Romford Rd at 11.30pm a group of seven 30-somethings are singing Arabic lullabies into a sky blue pram that they are pushing towards the train station. One holds a toy horse on a stick like an umbrella; another drums on a djembe at the traffic lights. One of the women walks backwards ahead of the buggy, singing “Oh, Moon” and “Tack Tack Tack Hey Sulaiman’s Mum” to the little girl inside, who first stops crying and then sits up straight and starts bobbing her head from side to side to the rhythm of the song.

The baby girl is like a startled starling, her saucer eyes alighting on the passing cars, the people lying on cardboard boxes in the sad late night shopping centre, the jet spray whooshing the pavement clean behind the tube station bins. She had been fast asleep in a strange bed, chatter and laughter rising from below her open window, when without warning her dad had woken and dressed her, put her in her pram and pushed her out into the secret night world.

The 30-somethings are still singing at Oxford Circus at midnight, standing around the pram and clicking their fingers as if it is the middle of the morning at a nursery school. The girl stops crying again, but that doesn’t stop the other people on the platform from staring at them with thinly disguised disapproval. “Everyone thinks we’ve kidnapped her”, says the girl’s mum.

On the Victoria Line, the girl’s eyelids start to droop, but the songs and kisses keep coming. She will cave into tired screams before she makes it to her own bed, and her dad will have to carry her like a newborn from the bus-stop to their front door. But for now she lies perfectly still and perfectly quiet, her eyes flicking from her reflection in the dark train window to the beaming faces of these adults who love her, they too staving off their tiredness, at least for another hour.

Old Photos


Up late alone, I find myself looking through old photos on Facebook, the mouse unwinding the years as I scroll down the page.

How young I looked at 21! All eyeliner and plaited pigtails and cheap plastic earrings; baggy dungarees and a glass of wine, that ridiculous floor-length floral dress and the children’s guitar I bought in Souq Hamadiyeh. How deliciously naive I was, throwing myself into this new life, asking so many questions and not asking questions at all.

Syria was an adventure for us study year abroad students, shining with an excitement so bright that it blanked out other things: the lack of choices our new friends had, the steel fist of dictatorship under the kitch ‘I heart Bashar’ mugs and presidential bumper stickers that we stuck ironically onto our laptops. The torture chambers that never crossed our paths or minds.

I plunged head first into new friendships, a new language, and eventually marriage, for a visa and out of love, unwittingly forging the shape of the rest of my life. Nothing was determined and no door would close behind us; we could always go back, back, back…

And I remember the drive to the airport, when you finally got your UK visa,  watching school children out of the car window as you prepared to take a plane for the first time. You would later say you had a feeling that you would never see those streets again, that the familiar shops and signs and faces were rolling past for the last time. But who can say what we really felt that day, before you were an immigrant, before Syria became a byword for war.

If I could go back I would ask everyone everything, and cling like a child to their every word. I would look so carefully, listen so hard.

But if that’s how I feel, looking at these old photos at 1am, then that’s what I should do now, here, in this life. Because these days are precious too, and every moment that passes is one we can’t return to.


London Bridge Attacks: Solidarity from Syria


(c) The Mirror

It was Nimr’s sister, who escaped Syria a year and a half ago, that told us about the London Bridge attack. She had just read about it on BBC Arabic and called us in the middle of the night from her new home in Sweden, to check we were OK.

Reading us the facts down the phone – a white van driving onto the pavement, mowing down passers by – Alaa cursed the attackers, her voice darkening with rage as Nimr told her he’d been with friends near the area an hour or so before it had happened.

“We’re used to calling friends in the area when we hear news like this,” she said, remembering the years in Syria when word of another bomb falling would have them reaching for their mobile phones.

“And now we’re scattered across the world, we read the news and call London!”

Out of everyone I know, it is friends from Syria who know how those shattered by what happened on London Bridge last night must be feeling right now.

Praying that refugees like them don’t become further victims of this madness.

Remembering, or not


Everything becomes normal. One day we had sex and now I’m sitting next to the window and can hear the familiar sound of my keys being thrown to the floor behind the sofa. Somehow a creature grew in me that can speak and dance and finds it funny to see my things smack the floorboards. Yet we don’t wake up surprised.

We wake up normal. Where we live now is quiet and still, with old sash windows overlooking every shade of green. We have lived in nine homes in the eight years we’ve been together, and sometimes it feels like this stillness is all there has ever been, and sometimes we remember the old places, innocently, playing ‘what’s your favourite’ on a rare dinner date, and the past rises up and crashes over us like a wave, and I fall silent, and realise we have become Adults, because Adults have things they Don’t Talk About because the hurt of remembering inhibits everyday living. I realise that these places are hidden in your body: behind a rib, your abandoned childhood home; nestled in your stomach, the flat where we fell in love, where you’d stay up late sharing stories and smokes with the guys at Khaled’s flat on the top floor. And now Khaled is gone and shells have blown through the real walls of these places and you have to keep them hidden small in your body because if you turned to face them they would balloon to their actual size and block out your breath.

So we wake up normal. You speak English now, and we go for picnics with my family, and we have a baby daughter who spends Sunday mornings emptying the contents of my bag onto the living room floor.

I used to have a colleague from Bosnia who had not been back since he left in the 1990s, and seemed to have cut the country out of his inner map, answering questions about contemporary Bosnian life with a simple “I don’t know”. I hope this is not what Syria becomes for us, but I don’t judge him for doing this like I did before.

Morning Poem

You wake up laughing
And pointing at things
At the photo that smiles
The kettle that sings
You chat to the window
And people below
Enjoying the taste
Of each sound that you know
The morning’s for moving
Your body’s for bouncing
And spread-fingered reaching
And full-body pouncing
And as I fill like an inbox
With things I must do
You say, nothing’s boring mum
Everything’s new

Bad Things

Sometimes, sneaking a smoke out the front as the world quiets and darkens, I imagine bad things, like the passing car slowing down and men with guns jumping out. Or the Ryanair passenger plane overhead opening its belly and spilling out tons of about-to-burst metal. Or waking up behind a locked door, your body belonging to someone else now, or sitting tiny before a man in camaflauge, begging for your child back.

Then I think ‘thank God that’s not real’, finish my cigarette and go back into the light.